Brexit Illusions


The idea that Britain can expect to “have its cake and eat it” is “pie in the sky”

Hopefully it is at last dawning on voters that it really is not possible for Britain to enjoy the many benefits of being a member of the EU if it opts out of the responsibilities that this implies. Brexit, as presented during the referendum, offered the prospect of a bright alternative for many UK citizens who were strongly dissatisfied with the status quo. It was easy to heap the blame for much of what was wrong in the UK on the bureaucrats of Brussels. Throwing off the European Commission’s shackles would create space for a more independent and prospering Britain to re-establish its greatness in the world and to create a fertile environment for innovation. It was a vision of a “land flowing with milk and honey”.

Unfortunately, the proponents of this seductive vision had given no thought as to how it could be translated into practice – and, as they now still stumble forward, it is becoming clearer every day to all that the Brexiteers’ dream is based more on wishful thinking than reality. With the benefit of hind-sight we can now see that the biggest error made by Mrs May and the UK parliament was to fire the starting pistol for the negotiating process by invoking Article 50 before they had defined attainable goals. Almost two years after the referendum, there is still no consensus even in the Cabinet on how to handle negotiations, so how can the government call for public backing when it cannot even explain its own objectives to us?

The main reason for the government’s current predicament is that the Brexit that they seem to want is unattainable and potentially hugely damaging to Britain’s economy and to its international standing. Until the Prime Minister faces reality and accepts that what the Brexiteers propose is based on nostalgia, fantasy and illusions, the negotiation process will lead nowhere.

Here are a few of the illusions that seem to have captivated her.

Illusion 1. Europe needs Britain more than we need Europe.

The first and biggest illusion in the Brexiteers’ thesis is that Europe’s other 27 EU countries need us more than we need them and so they are bound to agree on a favourable future free trade deal that preserves many of the benefits of the Single Market and Customs Union, while allowing us to walk away from adhering to the “freedoms” that guarantee a level playing field. The other EU countries have remained unanimous in signalling to Britain that, once it has left the Union and become a “third country”, it would be fooling itself if it aspires to a new relationship that is as favourable as the present one.

Illusion 2. If Britain leaves the Customs Union, it will be able to negotiate big new trading partnerships with other nations.

Liam Fox has traipsed the world searching for favourable trade deals, but still has to admit that he has drawn a blank. As a relatively small player, it seems clear that Britain won’t be able to create better trading conditions than those negotiated by the much larger EU unless it gives in to humiliating commitments including relaxing immigration restrictions and lowering its food and environmental standards. The lion’s share of UK trade is now with EU countries and those which already have agreements with the EU, so the extra volume of trade that could be developed with other countries is relatively small.

Illusion 3. Only by opting out of the Single Market, will Britain be free to reduce immigration.

Britain already has freedom to control the number of immigrants coming from non-EU countries, with the exception of genuine asylum seekers, but has chosen not to go as far as it could in this direction. If the UK really wants to cut inflows of migrants from other European countries, probably the best solution is not to tighten controls. Instead, if we remained a member of the EU, the government could engage constructively with the European Commission in developing programmes in the main migrant source countries (e.g. Romania, Portugal, Italy) aimed at reducing the “push factors” that drive people to move abroad. This would be compatible with the “level playing field” principles of the Single Market. It is likely that these countries would welcome UK assistance in upgrading their social protection programmes and in freeing up their labour markets and also, if asked, agree to discourage flows during an interim period.

Illusion 4. Leaving the European Union will enable us to “take back control”.

Most EU regulations and the actions of the 40 or so decentralised agencies are intended to improve inter-country cooperation in addressing issues that have trans-boundary dimensions. Some relate to trading standards, but many address issues such as assuring high levels of food safety, approval of medicines for Europe-wide use, letting citizens have access to national health services when they are travelling between countries, ensuring aviation safety, creating favourable roaming arrangements for mobile telephones, cooperation between police forces and so on. If Brexit means Britain must leave these bodies, as seems likely, it will lose any control over their work and become a “rule taker” rather than a “rule maker”.

Illusion 5. Britain can play a more influential role on the international stage when acting alone.

Although the Prime Minister claims that she wants to continue to cooperate with Europe in addressing defence and security issues, it is difficult to see how this can be full-bodied cooperation unless Britain stays represented at the highest levels of EU governance. While routine matters, such as the exchange of intelligence on terrorist activities, can be handled at lower levels, the big decisions – for instance on policies towards Russia or China – have to be taken jointly at heads of state level. By excluding itself from the EU, Britain will become increasingly weightless in determining European policies but, if only because of its juxta-position, will be exposed to the consequences of decisions made by its neighbours, whether it likes it or not. We should also recognize that Britain’s absence from the top table will play into the hands of those countries that see that it is to their advantage to have a weakened Europe.

Let me add that the post-Brexit disengagement of Britain from a managerial and technical role in all the EU bodies exacerbates the risk of future conflict in Europe. My own belief is that one of the great contributions to sustained peace in the region stems from the building of mutual trust and respect between the hundreds of thousands of people from all member countries who, over the years, have come together, convened by the European Commission, to jointly address problems of common concern and – as in the Erasmus programme – to immerse themselves in each others’ cultures.


It is tempting to extend this list of illusions – to touch, for instance, on the illusion that Britain will be more prosperous when it leaves that EU (which has already been smashed by the government’s own forecasts), or that leaving the EU would be a quick and easy process. Instead, let us use the evidence that is already available to call on the government and all political parties to come down to earth and to bravely admit that, even if in June 2016 a majority of voters called on Britain to leave the EU, we now know enough to be certain that it would be an immensely self-harming step.

The time has come for a U-turn in the processes shaping our future relationship with Europe in ways that respect the aspirations of young British citizens. They are the ones whose lives will be most affected by any decision and who overwhelmingly voted in the referendum to stay in Europe.

Categorised as General

Britain’s selfishness will rebound on us

Britain’s selfishness will rebound on us

How selfish can the UK government get?

Selfitis is a newly recognised obsessive disorder to which ardent selfie snappers are prone, but selfishness –  like altruism – is a behavioural inclination that has probably been around for as long as humans have interacted with each other.

Probably nobody thinks of themselves as selfish and it is hard to believe that anyone would deliberately act in a selfish manner, or even admit to doing so unless presented with hard evidence. However, we can readily see selfishness in the comportment of others to the point of characterising them as being “selfish people”.

It is easy to portray people from different nations or regions for what are perceived as their behavioural traits.  Even if we know that the story is not really true, we will still laugh at a good Irish or Jewish joke, especially when it is told self-deprecatingly by a local. Being a Scot, I often find myself defending my fellow-countrymen by arguing that we are not as mean and selfish as we are reputed to be, but then I fall into the trap by accepting that it might be true of Aberdonians!

And so I hesitate to suggest that the Brexit process may have induced many British people to become a bit more selfish in their behaviour towards others, especially foreigners. Indeed, even if it may be true, it is hard to sustain this imputation when I see the huge outpouring of compassion for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire or the Manchester Arena bombing. Now what may have seemed to be a hardening in attitudes towards immigrants is turning into a sense of national shame about the inhuman detention and forced deportation by the government of migrants of the “Windrush generation” who arrived legally in the UK and have spent over 50 years living, working and paying taxes in the country. Hopefully this signals a reversion to the tolerance and respect towards others that we like to think of as truly British.

I believe, however, that I am on safe ground in claiming that the government’s conduct of the Brexit process is tainted by a strong streak of selfishness  and occasional bravado which does not reflect how most British people like to interact with their neighbours. This was most vocally expressed by Boris Johnson when he declared “our policy is having our cake and eating it”. It is an extraordinarily damaging and short-sighted position for a government to take when it claims that, after it has “taken back control” from the bureaucrats in Brussels, it still aspires to have what the prime minister repeatedly describes as a “deep and special partnership” with the EU. This is a bit like a fellow who, even before he has completed the process of divorcing his wife, announces that he still expects to go to bed with her whenever he feels like it. It also disregards the EU negotiator’s message that, if Britain, through its own choice, ceases to be a member of the EU, it cannot expect to be able to cherry pick the elements of its future relationship.

Common issues need joint responses

Essentially, the European Union is based on the recognition, that, though they have distinct cultural and national traits that must be respected, its member countries and people share many common values and face many common issues, a lot of which have trans-border dimensions. The European Commission, its institutions and its associated agencies have been set up to arrive consensually at joint policies that enable us to cohabit in our continent in peace and prosperity and to deal with common issues collectively and hence more efficiently. This is a constantly evolving arrangement that equips itself to cope jointly with new challenges and threats as they arise. Moreover, the fact that 28 nations speak with a common voice on issues of global significance gives each much greater weight in shaping the international scene than if each were to act alone, even if it is a country that prides itself on its own powers.

Britain’s intended withdrawal from the EU is an arrogant act of selfishness, exactly in line with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word: “Concerned chiefly with one’s own personal advantage or welfare to the exclusion of regard for others, deficient in consideration for others; actuated by or appealing to self-interest.”

On the domestic front, this selfishness is manifest in a government that is dominated by a bunch of egocentric politicians who seem to be driven more by their personal ambitions than by any concern for our common good – a government that is determined to push ahead with a process of exiting the EU which, according to its own calculations, will badly damage the economy and undermine the livelihood prospects of its citizens, especially those living in already deprived communities.

Nor does it seem that this same self-interested clique is remotely concerned about the collateral damage that Britain’s withdrawal will inflict on other EU member countries and on the continuing ability of the Commission to address shared problems successfully when one of its biggest members unilaterally excludes itself from all its decision-making bodies.

My personal view is that our current leaders take delight in deliberately damaging the effectiveness of the EU but that this is bound to boomerang back on us. The trouble is that whatever decisions the EU will take in future will inevitably impact on our country and on us as individuals if only because of our juxta-position to continental Europe. By opting out of EU institutions in order to “take back control”, we are, in practice, losing control and becoming a rule-taker rather that and rule-maker on issues that could profoundly affect our future. It would be natural that, once Britain is no longer party to EU decision-making, the 27 countries will put their own interests first, probably to the disadvantage of the UK.

 Learning how the EU affects us

So far, the government has been allowed by voters to get away with this blatantly self-centred approach in negotiations on Brexit largely because, even nearly two years after the EU referendum, there is still very little public knowledge about the policies and actions of the EU and of the generally positive impacts that they have on our daily lives. We tend to take the benefits for granted.

However, if we start to look carefully on how the EU affects each of us, we shall see that many UK businesses, not least in its car industry, have thrived largely because of our country’s membership of the smooth-running EU single market and the tariff protections provided by the customs union. Likewise, most of us take pride in Britain’s environmental policies, not perhaps knowing that we have essentially adopted European policies developed with the full engagement of British politicians and scientists. The high standards of Britain’s workers’ rights, women’s rights and human rights also owe much to our membership of the EU and are upheld by the EU Court of Justice and the European Court for Human Rights –  valuable points of reference when we have a government that seems keen to dilute our acquired rights!

As EU citizens (and sometimes it seems that some British people forget that they are!), we can now invest, work, study, travel or live in any of the other member countries without impediment. We can travel by air, rail and sea, in the comfort of knowing that all EU countries adhere to the same safety standards; we can “roam” around the continent without facing huge extra phone bills; we can be sure that what we eat meets commonly agreed high food safety standards; and, through the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), we are assured easy – and usually free – access to NHS-style health assistance wherever we are in Europe.

Once the UK leaves the Union it will cease to be a full member of these and other EU institutions and hence forfeit its say in developing their policies and programmes. Moreover, as individuals, we are not likely to continue to enjoy automatic access to the benefits that they offer.

Time for a U-turn

Long before a People’s Vote takes place, voters should inform themselves more about how they each benefit from being citizens of both Britain and the EU. As the comparative advantages of EU membership dawn on them and the negative impacts of exiting become more evident, they will hopefully call on the government to shelve its commitment to Brexit, accepting that the will of the people has shifted since June 2016.  Now that we know more about the disastrous impact of all Brexit scenarios, most of us would like Britain to continue to play an influential and constructive role in shaping the future of the EU in the collective interests of all its citizens – especially the young –  rather than selfishly pursue a dead-end agenda that risks damaging the peaceful coexistence in Europe that we have enjoyed throughout our lifetimes.

Categorised as General